After the discussion regarding Bill Cosby’s new book, Come On People, it turns out that you and I weren’t the only ones appalled (and disgusted) by the title.
Reader Brad sent me the following story from the Boston Globe:
COME ON, COS: Newspaper slotman and style maven Bill Walsh has a beef with Bill Cosby. “So Much for That Ed.D.,” he headlines his blog post on the title of Cosby’s new book, “Come On People.” Apparently the author, despite his graduate degree, “never learned about the comma of direct address,” Walsh writes (at theslot.blogspot.com); it really should be “Come On, People.”
Such minor goofs, some of them mistakes and others misguided design choices, are common enough in titles. Remember “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and its missing hyphen? The short-lived sitcom “‘Til Death,” with its reversed apostrophe? And then there was “Two Weeks Notice,” the title that spurred punctuation stickler Lynne Truss to tote a felt-tip marker around town, correcting posters wherever she could.
Editors often fix these little glitches when the titles appear in print, either to follow “house style” or because alternative versions are circulating, so when I saw Cosby’s title in The New York Times last week, it had the requisite comma. For me, there was a different puzzle, one embedded in a Cosby witticism quoted by columnist Bob Herbert: “‘A word to the wise ain’t necessary,’ Mr. Cosby likes to say. ‘It’s the stupid ones who need the advice.”‘
Cosby is riffing, of course, on “A word to the wise is sufficient,” itself a translation of the Latin “verbum sapienti sat est.” When the maxim was better known, it was often shortened to verb. sap. or verb. sat. In English, too, it often appears in truncated form: “a word to the wise,” introducing a bit of advice, implies that the smart listener will take heed.
But here’s what’s weird: Cosby phrases his joke as if he were contradicting the original saying, when in fact he’s echoing it. “A word to the wise” doesn’t mean “ignore the dopes.” It means “a hint is enough for a smart person; it’s the stupid ones who need it spelled out.”
As sins against literacy go, these are surely small ones. But given his shape-up message, you’d think Cosby might be minding his maxims and tracking his commas more carefully.